The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Other than spell-casting, dancing is the activity most often traditionally associated with witches. Dancing is inspired by music. Music is among the primordial shamanic arts.
Greek mythology considered Earth’s greatest musician to be the shaman Orpheus, and music has been an integral part of global magical and spiritual rites since that proverbial time immemorial. According to traditional wisdom, music possesses extremely potent magic powers, which have historically been used for the following purposes:
To inspire ecstasy
To generate additional magic power
To foretell the future
To beckon and exorcise spirits as needed
To communicate with spirits
To appease ghosts
In healing, and in particular the treatment of mental and emotional illness and imbalance.
Many anthropologists believe that shamans were among the first to invent and play musical instruments. Instruments were incorporated into magical, spiritual, and religious rites not only in the Pagan world but also in Jewish and Christian traditions, and although dancing in Church would eventually be forbidden, music remained. By the early Middle Ages, the Church taught that individual musical notes and the melodies formed from them potentially held certain spiritual powers. Music here is considered from two perspectives: The musical instruments most powerfully identified with witchcraft—flutes, drums and percussion instruments, and the violin—and, how witchcraft and witches have served as inspiration for composers, musicians, and songwriters. Some of the most significant instances are listed below.
Drums and Percussion Instruments
Drums and other percussion instruments are the most ancient, most widely distributed and most ritually significant musical instruments of all. There are drums or percussion instruments for every conceivable magical or ritual use. Drums are so primordial that their origins are unknown. (Although the most ancient surviving instrument is a flute (see page 303), this is believed to be because ancient drums were made from perishable materials.)
Drums evoke the heartbeat: the first sound a human being hears is that of his or her mother’s heart while still in the womb, as well as the percussive pulsing of her blood. It is no accident that according to myth, drums were invented by the primal mother deity, Kybele: despite modern associations of drums as a masculine instrument, they were once almost exclusively associated with women and goddess-oriented spirituality, particularly the frame drum.
Drums and percussion instruments were women’s instruments:
The Maenads are commonly depicted with castanets and tambourines; both would also be integral to the tarantella (see Dance, page 248) as well as to modern belly dance.
The Hebrew prophetess Miriam led the women in dance to the accompaniment of tambourines.
Deities like Hathor, Isis, and Kybele are commonly depicted with drums.
Male deities closely identified with drums, such as Bes, Shiva, and Shango, tend to possess powerful associations with women as well.
As modern drums have become larger and more physically imposing, they have become stereotyped as “male” instruments; the tambourine, however, still retains its feminine associations—as legions of tambourine-shaking female backing singers can attest.
Drums are commonly viewed, in traditional magical perspective, as possessing and radiating primal female power: they represent the womb or the vulva and are the counterpart to the male flute. Both flutes and drums are shamanic instruments and are frequently played in conjunction—as they were during witches’ sabbats, allegedly. (They are also frequently paired outside the magical context, as with fifes and drums.)
Drums traditionally associated most exclusively with women are usually played with bare hands, as with the frame drum or dumbek. Drums most closely associated with shamanism, however, whether played by women or men, are often struck with a bone, horn or stick. (The nickname given a cooked leg of poultry, the “drumstick,” recalls what would once have been the bone’s eventual fate.)
Flutes aren’t the only phallic symbol used to balance the feminine drum; the drumstick serves the same purpose. Playing the drum with the stick is magically akin to grinding the pestle within the mortar or hammering nails in a horseshoe: all echo sexual intercourse and magically affirm the creative power of generation.
Drums are used for various magical purposes, most especially:
Spirit summoning: drums are used to invoke spirits. In African Diaspora traditions, every spirit possesses its own specific rhythm with which it may be summoned, with which it announces its arrival (drummers are psychically inspired to play the rhythm) or which can be used as a mode of communication.
Childbirth: drumming was once an integral part of childbirth rituals, intended to entice and direct the baby’s path from the womb as well as to entrance, relax, and direct the laboring woman.
Spiritual cleansing: the sound of percussion, especially when the instruments incorporate metal, allegedly drives off low-level spiritual entities and removes spiritual debris, thus creating a magical cleansing and purification effect. This may be understood as bonus effect that occurs even when drums are intended for other purposes.
Shamanic journeys: what in English is described as a “soul-journey” was, for the Saami people in what is now northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and north-west Russia, known as “the way of the drum.” Drums were used to guide and stimulate global shamanic forays into other realms and to assist the return journey.
Achievement of ecstasy: this was considered crucial in witchcraft and shamanic ritual. Ecstasy generates fresh magical energy.
Trance: drums are used to mesmerize and entrance. In this manner, they are also used for divination and prophecy, as well as to help ease ritual possession.
Divination: the most famous drums used as divination tools belonged to the traditional nomadic Saami people of the European Arctic. Magical designs were painted on the drumheads. Each drum was unique; inspiration for the design came to the shaman in dreams. Bones were placed on the drumhead: when the drum is beaten, the items jump and dance. Interpretations are made based on their movement, sound, and also the manner in which the items interact with the painted designs. Similar drums were popular as fortune-telling devices until recently among traditional Hungarian and Romany shamans and witches, although designs tend to be less complex and beans, rings or other small objects usually substituted for bones.
Various types of percussion have traditionally been identified with witchcraft and women’s spiritual traditions.
Castanets (finger cymbals) are so ancient their origins are lost in the mist. Castanets were widely distributed at a very early date in ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, and throughout the Mediterranean. Castanets were identified with Kybele and with the Maenads.
The damaru is an hour-glass shaped drum traditionally formed from two human skulls. It is not intended to be grotesque or “spooky” but to serve as a reminder of the transience of life and also that new life emerges from death. This Himalayan instrument is considered a shamanic tool and is most often identified with Shiva, although Durga, India’s warrior-goddess, also plays the damaru. Damaru are also made from ivory or wood carved to resemble skulls.
Frame drums and tambourines. No instrument is more associated with female spirituality and power than the frame drum (tambourines are frame drums with jingles attached). Female deities are often depicted holding frame drums; although some are anonymous, others can be identified—most notably Kybele. The frame drum is used to empower and spiritually and magically reinvigorate women.
The sistrum is an ancient rattle consisting of a metal or wooden frame with perforations through which rods and discs are strung. The instrument is most associated with the Egyptian deity Hathor.
Slit-drums of Central and South America are believed to potentially possess human or animal powers, particularly those of the jaguar. One style of drum made by indigenous people from Columbia has a woman’s head at one end and an alligator at the other.
The primal association of drums and percussion with witchcraft and women’s power survives in the tradition of Halloween noise makers. Although no longer so popular, until approximately the end of the first half of the twentieth century, in some communities, Halloween noise makers were as integral a part of Halloween festivities as costumes or trick-or-treating. Halloween revelers, children and adults, took to the streets with inexpensive rattles, tambourines, and similar noise makers. These noise makers, in addition to providing the joy of annoying the neighbors, were believed able to magically provide safety for their bearer while amidst the ghosts and spirits of All Hallows’ Eve. These instruments were customized for Halloween and so, like ancient magical drums, they were decorated with witchcraft motifs, most especially witches, black cats, owls, bats, spiders, and ghosts.
Further reading: Layne Redmond’s When the Drummers Were Women (Three Rivers Press, 1997).
See Dance: Tarantella, page 248; DICTIONARY: Maenad; DIVINE WITCH: Kybele; Shiva; MAGICAL ARTS: Divination; Spirit Working.
The oldest surviving musical instrument on Earth is a Neanderthal flute crafted from a cave bear’s femur with four holes discovered in what is today Slovenia. Its age has been estimated as between 43,000 and 82,000 years old. Not only are flutes among the most ancient musical instruments, they are also among the most widely distributed.
Flutes may have initially been discovered accidentally by blowing into hollow bones, stems (bamboo or reed) or pipes. Eventually instruments were created which could produce tones. (Experts believe that the Neanderthal bone flute replicates the modern do-re-mi scale.) They come in two varieties:
Transverse flutes, which have a side hole like the modern flute
Although the transverse is now the standard modern flute, it is a far more recent invention than the vertical flute: the earliest depictions of transverse flutes come from tenth-century Byzantium. Vertical flutes, of which there are many variations including Pan pipes, are the ones most identified with magic and witchcraft.
Flutes are understood to magically posses and transmit primal phallic power:
Women were forbidden to play flutes in many traditional societies.
“Playing the flute” is a metaphor popularly used in Chinese erotic texts to discuss certain sexual acts; the image of a female flute player may be understood as a visual euphemism.
Flutes, according to traditional magical wisdom from New Guinea, may be used by men to curtail women’s power.
Among the magical purposes ascribed to the flute are romance, fertility, and renewal of life.
Flutes were used in magical healing rituals and were a popular component of funerary rites.
Flutes were buried with the dead and carried as amulets by the living.
Flutes are used to disperse ghosts or to shamanically guide them to their next destination.
Flutes are also used for spirit summoning and for magical communication with animals.
As the earliest flutes were crafted from bone, flutes were considered powerful tools for necromancy (communication with the deceased) as well as exorcisms. The type of bone used to craft the flute would influence its powers. According to legend, Eastern Slav magicians once crafted flutes from human leg bones, which when played, forced all within earshot, except presumably the flautist, to fall sound asleep.
Deities associated with flutes include Athena, Dionysus, Hathor, Kokopelli, Krishna, Mami Waters, Pan, Tammuz, and Tezcatlipoca. Greek mythology credits Athena with inventing the flute. The sound of wind blowing through hollow bones reminded her of the hooting of an owl, her familiar. (And if one understands the owl to be Athena’s alter ego, then the sound of the flute is the sound of Athena herself.) Athena created a bone flute, which intensely delighted her—as it did her fellow deities, animals, and humans. She played it constantly until one day she realized some of those fellow deities were snickering at her. Puzzled, she caught sight of her reflection while blowing and became aware that she looked silly and undignified with her cheeks puffed out. She immediately threw the flute away and never touched it again, although the flute remained among her attributes.
Athena is a deity with an extremely complex history; she transformed herself from an ancient Libyan snake spirit with dominion over women’s mysteries into the staunchest upholder of Greek patriarchy, and thus her act of throwing away the flute, the instrument most associated with snake charming, may be understood metaphorically.
Yet another legend suggests that Athena was inspired to invent the flute by the sounds made by the hissing snakes on Medusa’s head as she was decapitated. Athena’s later impulse to distance herself from the flute came when she realized that, while playing, her face resembled the Gorgon’s mask.
Pan is credited with creating the variation of the vertical flute named in his honor, the Pan pipes. By the classical era, Pan pipes represented wild, carnal, elemental, physical nature and were looked down upon, as opposed to stringed instruments like the harp or lyre, which were under the dominion of Apollo and associated with order and “civilization.” Pan pipes were associated with stubborn rural backward culture, the type that would eventually become labeled “pagan,” rather than with sophisticated, educated, urban musicians. Pan pipes had powerful associations with goat herds and unruly horned deities. Pan pipe-style flutes are indigenous to Africa, Asia, and South America as well as to Europe.
See DIVINE WITCH: Dionysus; Tezcatlipoca; HALL OF FAME: Cagliostro; MAGICAL ARTS: Necromancy.
The violin as it exists today first appeared in Italy in the latter half of the sixteenth century but did not gain widespread popularity until the early seventeenth century. The folk name for violin is “fiddle” and both names are sometimes used to refer to any sort of lutetype instrument played with a bow. The use of the bow for playing the lute arose sometime prior to the ninth century, most probably in Asia.
Despite being a relatively recent invention, it quickly developed a reputation as a potent magical tool. Because the phallic bow is used to evoke music from the instrument’s curvaceous wooden body, playing the violin is magically understood as a metaphor for the act of creation; the instrument combines male and female primal power. In addition, the sound of the violin is identified with the human voice.
The violin evoked passionate responses. European Jews and Romany adored the violin. It is virtually impossible to envision Jewish klezmer music without violins, and many find it utterly impossible to envision Romany music without the instrument either.
Violins were not merely musical instruments however: European Jews and Romany perceived that the violin shared and expressed the soulessence of their cultures. They had tremendous symbolic value. Violins were considered powerfully magical, bordering on the sacred:
Images of violins were carved on Jewish tombstones.
Violins were painted on a synagogue ceiling possessing an astrological motif in Vaslui, Romania.
Violin strings were used as Romany amulets, wrapped around a child’s wrist for protection in the manner that other cultures use red string or ribbon.
In both cultures violins are used for summoning spells and, especially, for romantic magic. As a Jewish proverb states, “A wedding without a violin is like a funeral without tears.”
This favorable perception was not universal; the opposing reaction was equally passionate and intense. Up until the last century Christian folklore considered the violin the devil’s own instrument: violins were potentially diabolical and spiritually dangerous. This perception gave rise to a complex folklore—for instance when you play the violin, you communicate directly with Satan. Not that you’ll ever play as well as he does or at least not without his help: among the professions Satan sometimes assumes is that of violin teacher. Master violinists were believed to have obtained their skills directly from the devil. To request private lessons, meet him at the crossroads.
According to European superstition, should you dance to the playing of an unknown fiddler, your soul could be in danger. A commonly told story, an antique version of what would now be called an urban myth, describes an innocent, unsuspecting maiden who meets a group of women joyously dancing to the sound of one lone man playing the violin. He’s usually either described as a black man or he’s dressed in black; he frequently wears a black cape. The man is either sinister and scary, or exceptionally handsome, or both. The girl joins the party but discovers by the end of the dance that she has unwittingly been irrevocably initiated as a witch.
Another old legend says that fairies dance to violins. If a human joins them, he or she will fall under their power, becoming bewitched and enchanted. Whether this is a problem or a privilege depends upon one’s perceptions of fairies.
According to Christian folklore, Satan doesn’t just play the violin for his own pleasure; he plays it specifically so that witches can dance. And of course, the violin has been known to inspire wild, wear-your-shoes-out dancing. Those who only associate violins with staid classical music should listen to Romany and klezmer music, both of which prominently feature violins that once fueled week-long wedding festivities. The violin’s powerful associations with the tarantella also did not help its reputation.
The violinist most identified with the violin’s magical and diabolical associations was Niccolo Paganini (October 27, 1782-May 27, 1840). Paganini was acknowledged as the greatest violinist in his native Italy and throughout Europe; people speculated about how he became so great and soon rumors began to fly. Paganini developed a demonic reputation; his brilliant playing was attributed to a Faustian deal with the devil. He was even labeled a “Hexensohn” (witch’s brat). Paganini seemed to enjoy these rumors; he never denied them but instead seem to encourage them. He dressed completely in black and would arrive at his concerts in a black coach drawn by black horses. Among his most famous compositions was Streghe, translated as The Witches or Witches’ Dances.
(Rumors about Paganini’s deal with the devil weren’t laid to rest when he died. On his deathbed, Paganini refused the final sacraments; the Church refused to bury him. His body was kept in a basement for five years until finally his family’s petition to have him buried was accepted.)
Madame Helena Blavatsky is renowned for writing serious metaphysical tomes like Isis Unveiled but she also wrote horror stories. In her story The Ensouled Violin (1891), an occultist turned passionate violinist hears Paganini and becomes incredibly depressed, fearing that he will never achieve such greatness. Instead of just telling him that practice makes perfect, his violin teacher attempts to comfort him by advising that Paganini only achieved his unworldly mastery with Satan’s help and, furthermore, that Paganini’s violin has unique strings, crafted from the intestines of a human victim who willingly offered his body for music’s sake.
Further information: American Violinist Rachel Barton’s CD Instrument of the Devil explores the mythic and literary associations of the violin. Selections include Paganini’s The Witches (Cedille Records, 2003).
The violin teacher assumes that this information will appall his student, leaving him satisfied with his normal human talent, but, of course, one must never assume. The student’s reaction? “’By the witches of Thessaly and the dark arts of Circe!’ he exclaimed, with foaming mouth and his eyes burning like coals; ’…I now swear…never to touch a violin again until I can string it with four human chords.’”
Music of all kinds has been inspired by witches, witchcraft, and the magical arts.
Operas incorporating images of witches:
Arabella (Richard Strauss)
Dido and Aeneas (Henry Purcell)
Hansel and Gretel (Englebert Humperdinck)
The Love for Three Oranges (Sergei Prokofiev)
Macbeth (versions by Giuseppe Verdi and Ernest Bloch)
The Magic Flute (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
The Masked Ball (Giuseppe Verdi)
The Medium (Gian-Carlo Menotti)
Ruddigore or The Witch’s Curse (W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan)
Rusalka (Antonín Dvořák)
Il Trovatore (Giuseppe Verdi)
Popular songs inspired by witches, witchcraft and magical practices include:
Black Magic Woman (Fleetwood Mac, Santana)
Ju Ju Man (Brinsley Schwarz)
Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac—Rhiannon is the name of a Welsh deity; however the song’s composer Stevie Nicks has described it as being about “a Welsh witch”)
Season of the Witch (Donovan, Brian Auger’s Trinity featuring Julie Driscoll)
That Old Black Magic (Harold Arlen classic popularized by Sammy Davis Jr, Ella Fitzgerald and countless others)
Under Your Spell Again (country music classic covered by Buck Owens, Gram Parsons, Waylon Jennings and countless others)
Witch Doctor (David Seville, Alvin and the Chipmunks)
Witch Queen of New Orleans (Redbone)
Witchcraft (popularized by Frank Sinatra, this standard by Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman has also been covered by Chris Connor, Julie Wilson and countless others)
Witchy Woman (The Eagles)
Blues and Rhythm and Blues
Blues and its descendant, rhythm and blues, must be considered separately from other forms of popular music because of the unique nature of its references to witchcraft, divination, and magical practices.
With very few exceptions, references to witches, witchcraft, spells or other magical practices in other genres of popular music are intended as metaphor; in blues and rhythm and blues references to fortune-tellers, swamp witches, and mojo hands are meant literally. These references are also unique because of their matter-of-fact nature. They are totally lacking in sensationalism or diabolism: when Benny Spellman sings of going to see the fortune-teller it seems like the most natural thing in the world, just like consulting any other professional. And when Muddy Waters sings of going down to Louisiana to get a mojo hand, it is absolutely matter of fact, totally without shame or sensationalism. (Of course this matter-of-fact acceptance of magical practice, in conjunction with its celebration of carnal pleasures, may have helped earn the blues its old sobriquet, “the devil’s music”…)
In what other genre does a man boast of the efficacy of his amulet as does Muddy Waters in “I Got My Mojo Working,” a concept so foreign for many that they presumed the song must be about something else, leading to new definitions for “mojo” as in the Austin Powers movies? In what other genre of popular music could a paean to divination as sweet and sincere as Bettye Lavette’s Fortune Teller even exist?
The following songs are but the tip of the iceberg:
Fortune Teller (Benny Spellman)
Fortune Teller (Bettye Lavette)
Gypsy Woman (Muddy Waters)
Hoodoo Lady (Memphis Minnie)
Hoodoo Man Blues (Junior Wells)
Hoodoo Party (Tabby Thomas)
I Got My Mojo Working (Muddy Waters)
I’m Blue (The Ikettes)
I’m A Mojo Man (Lonesome Sundown)
I Put A Spell On You (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins)
Louisiana Blues (Muddy Waters)
Mojo Hand (Lightning Hopkins)
Mojo Hannah (Betty Harris)
Seventh Son (Willie Mabon)
Somebody Done Hoodooed the Hoodoo Man (Louis Jordan)
Two Headed Woman (Junior Wells)